Paul - Two Sources of Information
There are two sources of information available on the apostle Paul. One is, of course, his own writings, however that is defined. The other is the book of Acts. Acts presents a generally pro-Jewish, pro-Torah portrait of Paul, while the epistles present a mixed view. Should either of these sources be considered more reliable than the other?
It is typical for scholars to discount the evidence from the book of Acts. Paul's own writings, though mixed, are considered to primarily support the traditional view of Paul preaching a "law-free" message. Because Acts consistently presents Paul as being, and claiming to be, Torah-observant, the inference is drawn that Acts was written by a Jewish-sympathizer who wanted to distort the "real" Paul.
On the other hand, many of us have had the experience of listening to one side of a telephone conversation, thinking they were talking about one thing, and finding out later that the topic was something entirely different. Reading the epistles can be like that. Unless we know for sure what the situation is that Paul is addressing, who the people are who are receiving the letter, and who the people are who are influencing them, the chances for misunderstanding are high. And if we are incorrect about any of those matters, it's virtually certain that our interpretation will be clouded.
For example, if we base our understanding of Paul on a reading of Galatians that wrongly identifies the situation or the people influencing the readers, we can seriously misunderstand the message. If we then take that portrait of Paul and use it to interpret the other epistles, the potential error compounds. If we take that portrait and use it to interpret Galatians in the first place, we are guilty of circular reasoning.
These studies will attempt to take Paul at face value, respecting both the account in Acts and the self-revelation in the epistles. We will assume that Paul was coherent and consistent, and try to find out what his views really were on these issues.
Saul and Stephen